This evening in the Dail, a debate and then a vote will take place for the 2018 Data Protection Bill, which will incorporate what measures that Ireland needs to implement under GDPR and also create a new regulatory framework for the enforcement of data protection laws in Ireland. One very important part of this bill concerns the Digital age of consent which has been set for 13 and sets Ireland at the lower end of the scale compared to other EU countries.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) the age limit is set at 16 but countries in the EU can enact national legislation which specifies a lower age limit between the ages of 13-16. One of the major concerns is that children at the age of 13 will not fully understand what they are signing up to and that they will be giving their personal data away, and it is worth noting that as we try to battle obesity in this country fast food companies will be targeting advertisements aimed at teenagers.

Two people who have campaigned for the digital age of consent to be 16,are renowned cyber-psychologist Dr Mary Aiken and Professor Barry O’Sullivan director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics. Last year they ran a 24-hour Twitter Poll, and the majority of participants believed that Ireland should set its digital age of consent at 16, not 13. A total of 1,658 people voted in the poll and 46% agreed that the digital age of consent should be 16 whilst 24% believed that it should be set at the age of 13.

Dr Mary Aiken states:

“We have maintained from the outset that the government consultation process was flawed, the latest reports regarding the RCPI, TUI and INTO’s support for 16 confirm that suspicion.

“It’s an old and established political game to find advice that supports your position and act on it – this is very worrying and absolutely unacceptable in terms of child protection policy.

“Arguments have been made on the pro 13 side that an age of 16 may restrict access to support services, this is not correct as Legitimate preventative and counseling services have nothing to fear from the GDPR.

“Advocates for a Digital Age of Consent of 13 might argue that children have a right to a voice online and have a right to participation however, our view is that this should not come at the cost of their personal data.

“There are considerable risks associated with allowing vulnerable children to use social media service that process their personal data for marketing/targeting/commercial gain. It is important that we protect children from complex algorithmic profiling that they do not understand – most adults don’t understand them. However, we must be extra careful with young people who are at a phase of their development during which they are vulnerable to influence and manipulation. For this reason, we need to keep parents involved in the lives of young people online and set the Digital Age of Consent at 16, and not at 13 as currently proposed.

“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to persuade them otherwise our Government have consistently called it wrong on this issue – we are now in an increasingly estranged situation whereby the social media companies themselves Facebook, WhatsApp, and Snapchat are now self-regulating and revising their policies to accommodate a European Digital Age of Consent of 16. Our government has been wrong-footed and is now out on a limb, a 13 year old one.

“A Digital Age of Consent in Ireland at 16, would be in line with Germany, The Netherlands, France, and others, who have best-in-class approaches to protecting children online. We, therefore, call on the opposition parties Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein, Labour and all of the Independent TD’s to support amendments for a Digital Age of Consent of 16.”

Professor Barry O’Sullivan added “The Digital Age of Consent is about child data protection and specifically when can a child sign-up to online services, such as online gaming, social media, various personal services, etc., that use and process their personal data without the need for parental consent.

“The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into effect on May 25th sets this at 16 but allows Member States to set it as low at 13. The Government wish to set the Digital Age of Consent at 13 years. I think that’s simply irresponsible.

”On May 25th, if the Government succeeds in their campaign for 13, it will mean that parents will not have a role in preventing companies that seek to commercialise their children’s personal data unless those children are 12 years old or younger. That’s crazy! Do we seriously believe that a 13 year old understands the implications and risks of consenting to the profiling of their personal data online?

“The Digital Age of Consent has been conflated with all sorts of issues such as a child’s right to participation online, a right to information, a right to a voice. Children have all those rights, but the cost of exercising them should not be their personal data. Services can support those rights of children without requiring the child’s personal data! Also, online services that offer counselling or preventative services to children have an exemption from the requirement of parental consent because those services are in the best interests of the child. The question we have to focus on is the relationship with commercial entities that seek to profit from our children’s data. Parents need to have the right to be involved in that.

“Today is D-day for the Digital Age of Consent since the Dail votes on it as part of the Data Protection Bill at 6pm this evening. Fine Gael and a number of independent TDs support 13. Labour and Fianna Fail have proposed amendments to the Bill to change 13 to 16. The Social Democrats and a number of independent TDs are also supportive, judging from their position at earlier stages of the Bill. The support of Sinn Fein is key here. “

When two, well-known experts are campaigning for the digital age of consent to be set to 16, we should sit up, listen and take note of their valid arguments. It is also worth noting that Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook recently announced that it is planning to raise the minimum age for users in Europe from 13 to 16, in order to help it comply with GDPR. If Whatsapp which has more than 1.5 billion users is doing this then surely the government and other social media companies should follow their lead and make sure that the digital age of consent is set to 16.

I will leave the last word to Professor Barry O’Sullivan “If we end up with 13, I wish every Government TD the best of luck trying to explain to Irish parents why they removed their rights to parent their children and made them fair game for a sector of tech companies eager to commercialise them by exploiting their data. This is not about when kids can use the internet. It’s about when the internet can use our kids.”





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